As someone who works in the field of older people and disabilities how does smart home technology help?

The use of smart home technology is not very prevalent in the UK, but where it has been used it has been very successful. Over the last ten years a number of pilot project have been set up but there are few long term installs where people are using smart home equipment everyday in their homes. This is possibly due to a number of restrictions such as cost (it is very expensive) and support (there are few people trained to support this type of residence in the community).

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How many smart homes are there in the UK currently supporting older or disabled people?

This is a very difficult question to answer. Part of the difficulty is that there is little written on the smart homes that do exist. People are too busy to write about them, so they go under the radar. I am aware of smart homes in Portsmouth and a number in Scotland, especially in Dundee by Jeremy Linsekell, as well as some work by Roger Orpwood on homes for people with Dementia in England, that are on-going and not test sites but actual residences but there is no central database that I am aware of and very little publicity currently of the work in this area which is a great shame.

What types of disability are you talking about?

Here again there is no fixed easy answer, but I am aware of a number of projects that have used smart homes to support older people, people with autistic spectrum disorders, people with brain injuries and people who have functional disabilities. I suspect there must be and should be work on people with cognitive difficulties but this is not being publicised currently.

Does the healthcare system provide any financial assistance for smart technologies for the disabled in the UK?

Again, this is a very difficult question. The simple answer is Yes and No! Yes financial assistance is available through various grants. These grants need to be applied for and can be hit or miss as to whether the correct amount of money is obtained. Most systems are not actually financed directly through healthcare as such they are funded through people in the field finding small pockets of money and bringing these pots together to finance the next stage. This is one of the main difficulties in why smart homes have not taken off.

Is there a financial benefit to the healthcare system to help disabled people care for themselves at home longer?

Without a doubt!. There is irrefutable evidence of how smart homes can enable people to live independently as opposed to be reliant on extensive support packages. Homes can be programmed to the exact needs of the person to be responsive to their needs and wishes. This does not mean support packages are no longer required but they can be tuned to meeting other more specific needs. The cost – benefit is clear. Moreover, as the needs of a person change the smart home can adapt to the new needs of the person with a few tweaks, often the devices are simple plug and play ones that slot straight into where an old device was.

Moreover, as smart homes get smarter, this reprogramming can be undertaken by people remotely, hence saving the costs of extra visits or even we are getting to the stage where we could see the system itself tweaking itself based on the activity patterns and other patterns of the user to best meet their needs. I know this sounds a little worrying to some people, but as long as the systems do not have control over safety critical functions then this should be relatively safe.

So where does the future lie in smart homes for the elderly and people with disabilities in the UK in your opinion?

Although there is not a lot of visible work in this area, I do know there is a very strong under current that exists. Currently, the flavour for technology in the UK in regards to health and social care is through Telecare and Telehealth services which are not smart. In fact the Government has provided considerable funding to support this non-smart approach to this form of care to the exclusion of smart home. What is evident is that there are a small number of people in the UK who are working closely in this area and developing new solutions and changing the way we can think about how technology can support people. If their work gets into the public domain and is publicised correctly then the future is very bright. I also should say that manufacturers of smart home technology should also come on board and begin to consider lowering their prices as this would make this option more viable in the long term. I personally see the future as very good indeed. I can see a future where smart homes are standard and not unique.

How would a Systems Integrator best take advantage of the opportunities to service this niche?

I think as a SI needs to get trained in the right smart homes technology. Currently the two big players in the UK are KNX and LonWorks. I have heard of more people successfully using KNX than LonWorks but I suspect both have equal worth in the long run. Having been trained it is then a case of finding the niche. The UK has a number of areas where smart homes have been used very successfully as I have mentioned, it might be sensible to talk to the people that installed these systems and find out what makes them unique. I suspect that part of the reason that the ones that work, do actually work is not through the integration as such of different technologies but the way in which the technologies are set up to interact with the person using them. The personalisation of the system, as it were, is critical to whether the system is successful or not. So the SI needs to learn these methods.

There is a rise in other forms of technological support for older people. Please tell me about them.

I have already mentioned Telecare and Telehealth. In the UK Telecare and Telehealth have slightly different meanings to that of the USA. Telecare refers to systems that are based on the home hub – pendant alarm system that can be extended through adding sensors. These sensors provide one way signals to the care phone which then dials out to a call centre and gets support. Telehealth is the use of a similar system to provide health monitoring at home, hence people can take their own blood pressure, peak flow etc and this data can be sent back to a remote server which allows community nurses and doctors to access this data. What is not happening currently, although might in the future, is that the home itself could do many of these things, it could monitor a person and report abnormalities in a very complex manner, but this is the future.

What is the future for these other forms of technological interventions and which is the future smart homes or other interventions?

There is a lot of research in ambient assistive technologies, and pervasive healthcare/ ubiquitous computing and I suspect this will have considerable influence in the future of technology. Sensors can be embedded in everyday artefacts such as clothing, or under a person’s skin, or in chairs, tables, fridges, cookers etc the list is endless. We currently have lots of sensors in our cars but we could also have sensors that could determine when we are getting stressed and angry and suggest alternative routes that are more calming to the driver. Ten years ago, in Japan, they invented a toilet that could analyse the waste matter and determine whether a person needed more nutrients and other medical issue. But even now the home can be set to observe so many things. It can tell when someone is up out of bed and turn the lights on, lighting the way to the toilet. It can determine how long a person is in the toilet and if they are in difficulties. It can summon extra assistance if someone is in difficulties, and this is just really basic technology, nothing fancy. The house can open doors and windows and ensure air quality and stop wasting heat. The house can control the power and water usage as well as encourage a person to stop being a couch potato and get up and exercise a little. The house can be the conduit of communication between the person who has very limited mobility and communication skills allowing them to talk to the outside world. It is not rocket science, in fact, it was all possible ten or more years ago, it just needs more people in the UK to take up the opportunity.

I suspect that in the future, we will have a range of options open to us. We could have a home that barks orders at us telling us how to live our lives, but I suspect this would not last too long, or we could have a home that sits there apparently doing nothing but is there to step into the breach when needed.

In the UK the notion of a ‘home for life’ is common and something architects are striving for through the use of inclusive and universal design. The missing link is smart homes which can enable the home to be more responsive to the changing needs of the occupants.